Around the United States today, newspapers have glowing tributes to civil rights pioneer Dorothy Irene Height, who passed away at age 98. The Washington Post calls Height “the founding matriarch of (the) U.S. civil rights movement,” while the New York Times labels Height “the grande dame of the civil rights era and its unsung heroine.” Go to a web site called niggermania.net, and Height is called “the old ape,” “old negress,” and “old coon” – all under a headline that reads, “Nice! (N-word) rights activist Dorothy Height beez dayed!”
The First Amendment protects that web site. Its name is allowable. Its hateful words are allowable. Its members can visit today and do what they’ve done every day since the web site began: Go public with their contempt for black people. On the web site (which is apparently run by a man in Arizona), President Obama and his wife are vilified with the most scurrilous language on the Internet. That’s no surprise. What is surprising is that similar invective can be found on more mainstream web sites, including YouTube, where Obama is called the N-word countless times by people who want to advertise their racism to as many people as possible. It doesn’t stop with Obama. A few months ago on YouTube, I was watching Louis Armstrong perform “What a Wonderful World” and in the comments section, one person called Armstrong “a jolly (N-word).” Go to the same video now, and on the first page of comments are scatological references and the observation that Armstrong “is a chimp.”
In the 1950s, this sort of language was the hallmark of overt racism. It still is – but YouTube and other web sites give readers the ability to hide behind their anonymity. While newspapers debate how to tame hateful comments, a new media outlet that went online today – the Honolulu City Beat – is banning anonymous comments. YouTube, meanwhile, relies on a kind of self-policing. Officially, YouTube has a policy that prohibits “hate speech,” including “speech which attacks or demeans a group based on race or ethnic origin,” but as YouTube spokeswoman Mandy Albanese told me via email, “With 24 hours of video uploaded to the site every minute, you can imagine why we can’t prescreen the content or police the comments. We rely on our community members to flag inappropriate videos and report abusive comments when they see them.”
With so many abusive comments, it’s apparently impossible to stanch them all – and the courts have usually sided with people’s right to offend. On Tuesday, the same day that Dorothy Irene Height died, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protected animal snuff videos. Hate speech has its limits, though. Two months ago, the North Dakota Supreme Court heard a case involving a white teenager girl’s use of the N-word. According to testimony, the teen uttered the word repeatedly in a verbal attack on a black teenage girl. The white teen’s lawyer said her language was protected by the First Amendment. The North Dakota Supreme Court disagreed, citing a legal precedent that “fighting words” – i.e., words deliberately used to incite hatred – cannot be used with complete impunity.
In his book, “The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, And Why,” Jabari Asim says a series of events have shepherded its continued use. In the mid-1990s, for example, the O.J. Simpson trial – and policeman Mark Fuhrman’s employment of the word – kept it alive in a widespread news context. Today, the word is used in public like never before. There’s no escape – not for a Congressman like John Lewis, and not for anyone hoping to see a joyful Louis Armstrong on YouTube.